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After months of sheltering from bombs in Kharkiv's metro, locals emerge to a devastated city

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By Julia Kalashnyk
Iryna spent three months in a Kharkiv metro station, sheltering from Russian bombs
Iryna spent three months in a Kharkiv metro station, sheltering from Russian bombs   -   Copyright  Credit: Julia Kalashnyk

After three months living in an underground metro station, Natalya, 62, speaks to Euronews in the relative plush surroundings of an old students' dormitory.

Outside, in Kharkiv -- Ukraine's second city that sits just 40 kilometres from Russia -- air sirens are at full pitch. Then explosions. 

“It’s far away,” says Natalya, nodding towards the window, barely even noticing it. 

Kharkiv was one of the first cities to come under heavy bombardment. Last month, Ukrainian forces pushed the Russians back to villages on the city outskirts. But after a relatively calm few weeks, Kharkiv remains within range of their artillery. 

'Every day feels like Groundhog Day'

At the start of the war, Natalya's family lived in the basement of their high-rise building in Northern Saltivka, a working-class area on the outskirts of Kharkiv, which took the brunt of Russian bombardments. 

After Grad rocket systems shelled Natalya's home and neighbouring houses began to collapse, she and her family quickly grabbed their belongings and rushed to the metro. 

“The way from home to the subway I will remember to the end of my days,” Natalya told Euronews, describing how she ran with a group of people along a snow-covered road as shells rained down.

“I packed my bags in a hurry and even took a lot of jam. It was hard work carrying those bags because of the jars, so every two metres I stopped and took one of them out,” says Natalya with a smile.

She thought initially she'd be there for a couple of weeks, a month, maximum. “We hoped that this nightmare would end soon, that Russia would stop,” she recalled.

Credit: Julia Kalashnyk
NatalyaCredit: Julia Kalashnyk

But the bombs continued to hit Kharkiv's residential buildings. One damaged Natalya’s apartment, scorching any hopes they'd be able to return home any time soon. 

While Natalya has a roof over her head, she struggles with her family being divided: her two daughters-in-law and grandchildren have left Ukraine.

Natalya says she feels trapped: "Every day now feels like Groundhog Day. I wake up every day and nothing changed.”

Asked if she would consider leaving Kharkiv -- tens of thousands have already done so -- she says only if the Russians occupied the city, something that fills her with fear. 

For now, Natalya is stuck in the dormitory, along with many of the people she lived alongside in the metro.

“I walked the streets and didn't recognise my city, my district. It wasn’t my life,” said Natalya, recounting the time she returned home to her apartment to pick up some belongings. 

Saltivka, densely populated before the war, was one of Kharkiv's most damaged areas. In its northern district, 70% of residential buildings and infrastructure are damaged or destroyed. 

Credit: Julia Kalashnyk
An electric tandoor was installed in the metro to bake bread.Credit: Julia Kalashnyk

'They ran to the metro in coats and slippers'

Natalya and her family lived at the Heroiv Pratsi (Heroes of Labour) station, a popular spot for those sheltering from the bombs. 

“Now there are about 50 people left here, about 20 more come to spend the night,” said Vyktor, a volunteer helper at the station. 

"Before there were many more, then many of them left. Only those who have no place to go, or who are afraid to live under shelling, remain."

“When the war has begun, they ran to the subway in coats and slippers,” remembers the volunteer. “They had nothing. Then we provided everything they needed: blankets, pillows, slippers, and mattresses. Volunteers put an electric tandoor in the subway and baked bread for people."

City officials restarted the metro on 24 May, arguing the move would help revive the city's economy. Authorities told those still at the station they'd be gradually resettled in dormitories in safe parts of the city. But not everyone is keen on the idea. 

Credit: Julia Kalashnyk
A bomb-hit residential block in SaltivkaCredit: Julia Kalashnyk

“Is the war already over?" asked Dmytro, sarcastically. "I don't want to die." The 38-year-old has been hiding underground with his mother and cats since 27 February. He can't return to his damaged apartment and he doesn't feel safe going to a dormitory.

Iryna, 42, has similar sentiments. The 42-year-old moved with her husband and ten-year-old son from the metro to a dormitory but doesn't feel any safer. The family, from Danylivka, a northern suburb of the city, had been at the metro station for three months. Unaware of whether their home is still intact, they don't want to return while the threat of shelling remains.

“Many of them were terrorized even stepping out of the metro," added Vyktor. "Some haven't been out for months. Understandably people are afraid now since they have seen buildings collapse in front of them.”

Some, even after they were relocated, returned to the metro. 

Olena, 35, together with her three children, did not last long in the sanatorium where they were placed. As shelling began, the woman grabbed her children and returned. 

“If we are not kicked out, we will be in the subway until the end of the war. That night, when there was shelling, the children told us to return to the subway.”

Credit: Julia Kalashnyk
Olena, the first woman on the left in this picture, and her three children gather in a Kharkiv metro stationCredit: Julia Kalashnyk